Week in Geek 3.13.15

Week in Geek – a roundup of science, technology and pop culture news with commentary each Friday

This week, my duties as a reporter for The News-Herald kept me busy during the free time i typically put into following up on any of the multitude of story ideas which continue to accumulate on my desk. There was the big donkey basketball game at Cardinal High School in Middlefield, and a pair of profiles on National Historic Register buildings in Lake County for an upcoming special section.

Unfortunately i was unable to schedule time for a timely interview to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8, but with any luck that will come together for next week.

On a side note, i was going to refer to my duties as a stringer, but that wasn’t quite accurate since i’m employed by the paper primarily as a copy editor, page designer and social media provocateur (that’s not what they call it, but it sounds more exciting that way). However, while looking into the term “stringer,” i discovered something called a superstringer that’s sort of the same thing except the writer is contracted with a news organization. It seems that with the collapse of the traditional newspaper model and the emergence of the Internet, stringers are fading away. But i am pleased to consider myself a superstringer, because it “super” is part of the word. Super cool.

Embracing life as a night owl means it's not unusual to make coffee at 3:00 a.m.

Embracing life as a night owl means it’s not unusual to make coffee at 3:00 a.m.

What free time i did enjoy this week came in the wee morning hours, which thanks to daylight savings time means the sun is coming up when my head is going down on the pillow. It’s a strange lifestyle that took some getting used to, coming to terms with not feeling lazy for sleeping in until noon because i was up all night at work.

So, what did i do with those precious hours, when there wasn’t anyone to Skype or speak with about Northeast Ohio tech and pop culture?

Discover new programs

Two new shows that break me away from my typical niche of serial killers and crime procedural dramas debuted recently.

The Last Man on Earth stars Will Forte as Phil Miller, in a delightful comedy about life on earth after every one on the planet but him is gone due to a devastating virus. Phil, like anyone can imagine, spends a couple of years searching the United States for other survivors before returning home to Tucson in a bus laden with artifacts from across the nation.

Resigned to life as the solitary human left on the planet, he proceeds to indulge in increasingly outrageous behavior while gradually loosening his grip on reality. Just as he reaches his lowest point, spending his days lounging in his margarita pool, he decides there is no reason in continuing and plans to commit suicide. But just as he’s about to go through with it, he spots a distant plume of smoke rising into the Arizona sky and rushes to discover another survivor.

The Last Man on Earth, Phil Miller spends his days immersed in a margarita pool

The Last Man on Earth, Phil Miller spends his days immersed in a margarita pool

And it’s a woman!

Carol, played by Kristen Schaal, quickly gets under Phil’s skin though, and what Phil desperately hoped for sours as the two of them learn to deal with each other.

Both of the show’s stars have been making me laugh for years, and this vehicle is a great opportunity for Will Forte to shine. It would be a disaster if either of the two characters didn’t allow for some kind of audience connection, and thankfully they both pull off an excellent blend of evoking some sympathy while at the same time remaining human enough in the sense that their actions border on the bizarre, irritating each other but not viewers. And, of course, both Forte and Schaal are very funny people who portray their characters terrifically. With only each other to play off of, timing is everything and each accomplish the comedic beats with aplomb.

Post-apocalyptic comedy doesn’t get any better than The Last Man on Earth, which airs Sunday nights on Fox.

In a similar vein, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt spins comedy out of a disturbing premise. This Netflix show, which in streaming program fashion dropped the entire first season at one time, stars Ellie Kemper as a former doomsday cult captive who decides to start a new life in NYC after being discovered and rescued.

Ellie Kemper is Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Ellie Kemper is Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

i’m really only familiar with Kemper’s work as Erin on The Office, a show that for me was must-see for its entire run. As Kimmy Schmidt, she brings the same sort of awkward naiveté that she did as Dunder Mifflin’s receptionist, except amped up to the Nth degree. i’ve read that the Erin character was originally supposed to be more sarcastic, but was altered by the writers to fit Kemper’s real personality more.

In an interview she did years ago regarding her role on The Office, she described Erin as “an exaggerated version of myself.” After watching a few episodes of Kimmy Schmidt, i get the feeling this new show is the perfect opportunity for Kemper to ramp up her comedic skills by exaggerating her personality even more.

There’s something almost magical about Kimmy the character, with Kemper’s body language and physical comedy matching her verbal delivery to spin out some really funny laughs. The absurdist alchemy she performs on the show transformed me into an instant fan, and i’m happy to discover there’s at least a second season planned.

What a Wednesday!

With a lifetime of interest in comic books distilled these days down to a selective few titles from Marvel Comics, there’s typically only one book per week on my digital pull list.

This past Wednesday, March 11, i opened up the Marvel Comics app to find there were five comics to add to my library!

Ant-Man #3 cover by Mark Brooks

Ant-Man #3 cover by Mark Brooks

First up was Ant-Man #3. Longtime Long Shot readers will know that new books get three issues to make a fan of me, and Ant-Man did it in just one back when Ant-Man #1 came out in January. When it comes to comics, i have pretty particular tastes. Classic superheroes are my favorite by far, but i’m just not interested in the standard sorts of stories about monthly superhero slugfests, big event crossovers and whatever villain is threatening mankind/the universe/whatever.

i’m more interested in what these colorful characters do when they’re not punching bad guys or each other, and Ant-Man delivers those stories. In this book, current Ant-Man Scott Lang (to be portrayed by Paul Rudd in the upcoming MCU film) is more concerned with being a good father and making a decent living than foiling nefarious schemes, with dramatic beats more about ties with his daughter and ex-wife than life-and-death struggles against supervillains.

Written by Nick Spencer, who also penned Superior Foes of Spider-Man – one of my favorite books that was of course canceled – brings the same brand of offbeat humor and breaking tradition to Ant-Man while still acknowledging the character’s place in the greater Marvel Universe.

As you can see from the cover to issue #3, Ant-Man runs into trouble with Taskmaster, a great Marvel villain who shows up to give our tiny hero a hard time. Like in earlier issues, Ant-Man uses his powers of both shrinking and communicating with ants to some clever effects against the guy with the photographic reflexes, and also manages to crack wise by about something i’ve long wondered myself:

“Your costume? It doesn’t make any sense! It’s like ghost-pirate-Captain America clone. With a cape!”

Howard the Duck #1 cover by Joe Quinones

Howard the Duck #1 cover by Joe Quinones

This was a surprise to see under new comics for the week: Howard the Duck #1 by writer Chip Zdarsky and artist Joe Quinones with color artist Rico Renzi. A new title starring this talking duck who displays remarkable common sense in a world gone mad was not something i’d heard about, and i felt compelled to check it out.

Not surprisingly, this new series debut was funny and unusual, setting up Howard the Duck as a private investigator whose first case provides him and readers to an introduction into the Marvel Universe. His pursuit of the case brings him for a visit to She-Hulk’s law firm, which occupies space in the same building as Howard’s office, and from there he has a rooftop meeting with Spider-Man.

A one-page training montage that involves dodging laser pointers and somehow integrates D&D miniatures results in success when he and new mysterious new assistant, the tattooed Tara Tam, run afoul of Black Cat before the interstellar hunter shown in the book’s beginning pages comes back around to abduct the book’s star at the behest of The Collector – something those who stuck around for the after-credits scene from Guardians of the Galaxy will find familiar, along with an appearance by one of that team’s members on the final page that will presumably lead to an escape attempt in the next issue.

i’m curious to see where this series goes, and the first issue has me intrigued enough with the wonderfully colorful art, irreverent humor and nod to the character’s ties to Cleveland from the 1986 film that was set in my hometown. Also, i wonder if there’s potential for discussion at the Get Graphic! group at Cleveland Public Library since the series organizer Valentino Zullo mentioned his interest in intersections of character traits like gender, race and so forth. With Howard, we’re given an intersection of mankind and aquatic bird, a character traditionally used for satire and social commentary that i hope continues to do so in this new series.

Waugh!

Silver Surfer #10 cover by Mike and Laura Allred

Silver Surfer #10 cover by Mike and Laura Allred

Another installment of cosmic ginchiness arrived with Silver Surfer #10, written by Dan Slott with art from the incomparable Mike and Laura Allred.

This issue wrapper up a storyline that had earthling Dawn Greenwood discover Surfer’s past as a herald of Galactus responsible for the World Eater’s destruction of countless planets and their inhabitants.

Packed with pathos, Surfer won the trust of a planet populated by the only survivors from world already consumed by Galactus who initially hated and feared the skyrider of the spaceways (with good reason) as well as a building on the humanity of Norrin Radd when, in the midst of trying to fend off Galactus, he admits to himself as much as to Dawn that he loves her.

Awww!

The emotional core of Silver Surfer has always been one of the things i’ve most enjoyed about this character, who despite vast cosmic power and awareness still cleaves to the humanity he gave up to save his own planet long ago. Despite everything he has seen and endured, and his basically limitless power, he still understands the importance of individuals in the cosmic scheme of things.

One of the other things i’ve most enjoyed about this book during its run is the development of the Surfer’s board (dubbed Toomie by Dawn) as a supporting character. The ways in which the writer and artist give Toomie a personality are creative and fun.

The end of this issue has a lot of tears and heartache, but hope as well – a hallmark of great Silver Surfer stories. In a clever twist of the paradigm Galactus shares with those who seek out planets for him to consume, the Surfer declares himself a herald once more. But this time, he is a herald of those who survived, and vows to find them a new planet.

i’m a little surprised that this book hasn’t included a letters page yet, since most of the other Marvel books, at least the ones i read, have a page or two at the end for reader interaction. i sincerely hope they are receiving astronomical amounts of great feedback on this series, because frankly its one of the all around best comics out there right now and it would be sad indeed if it were to get canceled.

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Thanks for reading the latest edition of  Week in Geek in addition to visiting The Long Shot. Of course, there were many more exciting things that happened in the world of science, technology and pop culture this week…but these are the ones that most caught my attention! If you have any news you’d like to share, drop me a line and let me know – i try to keep up with stuff but i can’t read everything!

i’ve got to wrap things up prematurely today due to a work emergency, and i didn’t get a chance to go over a few other noteworthy things (and thereby clear a bit from the To Do List). i’ll also include the usual further reading links that no one ever clicks on because hey why not?

Please visit again soon (like, tomorrow) for a follow-up Week in Geek to cover two other books, a little gaming update and – thanks to a reply i just received – some NE Ohio news from the tech community.

Follow @longshotist on Twitter for frequent shares of related articles and (hopefully) humorous nonsequiters.

Week in Geek will be back tomorrow, Saturday March 14, and i’d love to see you here!

Remember – if you would like to contribute to The Long Shot, i’d be happy to make that happen!

Week in Geek also appears alongside other great blogs at The News-Herald Blogs (click the logo at the top right of the page for the main site).

Check out the articles i’ve written for The News-Herald.

Thanks for reading!

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Week in Geek 11.21.14

Week in Geek – a roundup of science, technology and pop culture news with commentary each Friday

*My visit to Boxcast was rescheduled for next week, and in its stead i give you coverage from GIS Day and the prevalence of robots in our world today.

Discovering the world through geographic information systems

Since 1999, the third Wednesday of each November has been designated as GIS Day, a grassroots global event developed by Esri – an international supplier of GIS software – that lets users and vendors of the geographic software to showcase its applications to the public.

In the Cleveland area, GIS Day was celebrated by Lakeland Community College as i mentioned last week, and i had the good fortune of visiting the school Nov. 19 to check it out. Most of the action took place in Lakeland’s geospatial technology lab, where experienced users of GIS technology have demonstrations and exhibitions for visitors, who could also participate at one of the lab’s numerous computer terminals.

Lakeland Community College GIS Day, photos courtesy of Jessica Novak, marketing & communications specialist

Lakeland Community College GIS Day, photos courtesy of Jessica Novak, marketing & communications specialist

The lab itself was adorned with GIS maps lining each of the walls that highlighted just a few of the countless applications for the software. As one of the demonstrators – Brian Villers from the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District – explained, “90 percent of data has a spatial component to it, and if it has a spatial component, you can use GIS.”

Villers became interested in GIS while a student at the University of Akron, and along with his colleague Jeff Duke gave a very cool presentation on how the NEORSD utilizes ArcGIS software to have a major impact on the efficiency and efficacy of their work. Field crews, equipped with tablets, can pinpoint trouble spots and indicate the severity of problems so the organization can respond quickly and effectively to correct them. Duke also pointed out that tasks which used to take months or weeks could now be completed in days, because ArcGIS allows information from multiple sources, like spreadsheets on various people’s computers and countless files, to be consolidated into a single cloud-based platform that Villers built.

In order to gather the data instrumental to Villers in building the platform, technicians walked over 250 miles of streams and other waterways to provide a comprehensive inventory of the system. Using their tablets, they added info points as well as video and photos that anyone with access to the platform can use to get detailed information about any of the areas. The info points, indicated by colored dots on the map depending on their severity, include the technician’s name, date, observation type and description.

Lakeland Community College GIS Day, photos courtesy of Jessica Novak, marketing & communications specialist

Lakeland Community College GIS Day, photos courtesy of Jessica Novak, marketing & communications specialist

Outside of crew tasks such as debris-choked water flow, NEORSD uses ArcGIS software to keep track of and manage all the water flow lines throughout their district, which is a dizzying array when shown on their live ArcGIS map. Technicians can monitor the flow of water and make adjustments as needed, as well as survey areas for potential new lines and coordinate any land development necessary to keep NE Ohio’s water running. The latter is particularly useful to NEORSD’s legal department, because the database displays not only a map of the areas in question, but land and project costs, easements, the progress of jobs and more – all shown live in real-time.

Part of NEORSD’s strategic plan, these comprehensive dashboards are used to track the progress of all strategic objectives and their metrics.

In addition, the ArcGIS data can be quickly and easily shared with other departments like firefighters, police and emergency crews in severe events, which can greatly increase their ability to respond to situations. As Duke said, one of the best things about this technology is how it visualizes data collected from all over clearly and concisely. The momentum behind their use of ArcGIS answers the question, as Duke put it, “How can I provide best services for my customers?”

The ArcGIS information isn’t just for internal use, either. Customers can access GIS maps through NEORSD’s website to find information about fees, stormwater management and more.

In a more general way, the demo from NEORSD’s Jeff Duke and Brian Villers showed just another way that technology makes things more efficient and how huge of an impact it has on our world. Lying beneath the surface of all the things we use each day, like our water systems, is an intricate network of technology where people like Villers play a key role in improving its use.

Earlier in the day, technology specialist Stephen Titchenal led a workshop that focused on Google Earth, a powerful and free application with a huge amount of imagery that also allows for citizen mapping, and showed some of the more advanced things users can do with it on their own.

Titchenal introduced guests to his website Rails and Trails that “provides high-resolution digital images of historic maps and documents that can be re-used by students, educators and historians.” All the seats in the lab were filled during Titchenal’s presentation, during which he pointed out several aspects of Google Earth that may go unnoticed by the casual user, like the display of images’ origin, how to use the clock feature to look at how maps change over time, and how to add layers or overlay other maps and then adjust transparency to see how those maps interact with Google Earth. The mixed crowd of men and women of all ages were keen to follow along with his guide through the application, as well as ask questions about its capabilities.

Essentially, what Titchenal brought to the group was insight into just a few of the ways Google Earth can be heavily customized by users not only in its UI but through using information from other sources like the historical map overlays mentioned above. The bulk of the presentation delved into the Layers, and specifically the Earth Gallery option through which users can browse through shared maps to use as layers in Google Earth. In particular, Ohio and Pennsylvania have very good maps, as those two states were the first to use LIDAR (light and radar) over both of the entire states to create elevation maps. He also pointed out that users’ operations are all saved under “My Places” so you can return to them easily later, download onto your computer or share with others.

“You could take your whole life to look at this stuff,” Titchenal said. “It’s really very fascinating.”

And indeed it was, especially considering the application itself is free. Many times, i’ve used Google Earth as a simple distraction for entertainment. “Ooh, look, i can see that place i went to one time!” But it is so much more than that, able to create routes, help with historical and geographical research and a multitude of other tasks. Titchenal’s presentation was worth it alone just for his pointing out the Earth Gallery’s shared maps and overlay ability, which has things like worldwide Climate Change since 1910, voter turnouts and park systems just to name a few drops in the bucket.

Lakeland Community College GIS Day, photos courtesy of Jessica Novak, marketing & communications specialist

Lakeland Community College GIS Day, photos courtesy of Jessica Novak, marketing & communications specialist

Mark Guizlo, professor and chair of the department of geography and geospatial technology at Lakeland, was really pleased with the response from both guests and presenters.

“It is especially rewarding to hear from students who have gained a new understanding of how their own field of interest can (be) related to GIS and to a spatial perspective of the environment,” he said. “The presenters were impressed with the questions they got from students, which is great to hear.”

Guizlo estimates that about 500 people participated in GIS Day at Lakeland, with 80 students that completed a GIS workshop during that time and 15 exhibitors from public agencies and private companies.

“We need students who want to add GIS to their skillset or who want to become a GIS technician,” Guizlo added. “The job market is growing, and Lakeland offers a robust program that is grounded in the real world and based on the U.S. Department of Labor Geospatial Technology Competency Model.”

Guizlo went on to say that the most impressive thing about GIS is the interdisciplinary nature, something that Villers echoed when i spoke with him after the NEORSD presentation. He stressed that students are well-served by attending events such as this and other networking events, making the point that “in order for them to build a future, they have to take seriously (these additional steps) since they need every tool available to compete.”

Like the LeanDog meetup, events such as this are plentiful not only in my hometown of Cleveland in Northeast Ohio, but i imagine all over. These free community events are great ways to not only network as Guizlo mentioned, but also to learn new skills and improve existing ones. As i mentioned a couple of weeks ago, there are avenues out there for everyone hoping to move forward with their aspirations whether they’re technology-based or not – you only need to take that first step.

Robots!

Oh, hi.

Oh, hi.

A fair bit of news this week from the robotics field, something i am both fascinated and a little wary of. First up, i saw a video of two robotic arms programmed to conduct an elegant katana swordfight. The extreme precision is flawless and amazing, to be sure. On the other hand…why do robots need to conduct samurai battles again?

On a less violent, but probably more impactful to human life (via roboticizing of jobs) is a robotic pancake maker. Like the katana-fighting robots above, this robotic system comes courtesy of ABB Robotics, a leading supplier of industrial robots and modular manufacturing systems.

In both cases, precision is showcased through these machines’ impressive software that does anything a human can do, only better. Maybe someday i’ll post more deeply about my theory of where humankind is heading in light of AI and robotics advancement, but for now, let’s move on to more current-day robotics news which comes from The Atlantic.

In an article titled “Robots at Work and Play” posted Nov. 19, the terrific magazine shared a gallery of 30 photos showing a wide range of robots like Awabot, which allows absent students to follow as well as participate in classes. Kinda like the time Sheldon built a robot version of himself to extend his lifespan on The Big Bang Theory.

Life imitates art...?

Life imitates art…?

A few other noteworthy robots featured in the gallery are one built by an Iranian schoolteacher that instructs children on how to perform daily prayers, the X-37B Orbital test vehicle – a robotic spaceship, and a strength-enhancing exoskeleton. The gallery is really quite fascinating and worth checking out. Several of them stray into the “uncanny valley,” the point at which robots are so lifelike as to cause human revulsion, but nevertheless there are numerous really intriguing examples of robotics.

The dark world of the future

My fascination with science fiction’s depiction of a world that might come to be (and eerily often does) stretches back to when i first became interested in authors like Philip K. Dick and Daniel F. Galouye, who’s 1960’s sci-fi books told of pervasive technologies and mankind’s struggle to find a place in the world we’d created for ourselves. Reading them as i did in a time when much of what they imagined had come to be, and in some cases even more dramatically than they envisioned, fostered in my both a respect and caution towards technology.

In addition to my great love of old timey science fiction, which motivated me to write about the fantastic (and now canceled) Prophets of Science Fiction program, i also love street-level classic comic book superheroes like Daredevil, Hawkeye and Moon Knight – depending on the creative team of course. The latter of those heroes recently enjoyed what i thought was one of the finest comic book runs in recent years, courtesy of the creative team of Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey. So i was quite dismayed when their collaboration on Moon Knight ended after six issues. Six issues! The title continued, and it might be great, but i was so disappointed and so into the book that i can’t bring myself to continue reading.

However, i was quite joyous to come upon this little news flash – a new title from Ellis and Shalvey coming in 2015 billed as “an all-new ongoing series about the disturbing, unruly future that looms near for society.” The book is called “Injection,” and although i’m a pretty solid Marvel zombie, i will definitely give this the ol’ three-issue chance to see how it goes. If it’s anything like Moon Knight, i’m in for the duration. For me, the most important thing about comics is the art, and Shalvey’s work is so cinematic and evocative. Ellis is hit-or-miss for me, and to be honest i’m much more into the artistry of comics that a great artist and bad writer can still be enjoyable under the right circumstances. Not that Ellis is bad by any means, and a dark sci-fi tale by these two gives me high expectations.

Promo print for the upcoming Injection comic

Promo print for the upcoming Injection comic

i put my money where my keyboard was and picked up the first couple of issues of the new Thor series and i’ve got to say, it’s terrific so far. It’s no secret that i am a great fan of strong female heroes, so i was already excited about this book since day one of hearing about it. Now two issue in, the new Thor has delivered imo. The artwork is fantastic, and although the story isn’t exactly riveting so far, the new version of Thor certainly has my attention. To be honest, i don’t really care who is under the helmet wielding Mjolnir, although it will be interesting to follow the story and find out.

What i enjoy most so far is the feel of the book as a great jumping on point for new readers to comics in general and the Thor character in particular. Thor has never really been all that intriguing to me, but this iteration has my attention because of the duality represented in her character so far. To others, she speaks and acts as traditional Thor would, but internally she is unsure of herself and her abilities. In fact, it seems the hammer Mjolnir has quite a bit more to do with the persona of Thor than being a mighty weapon…

The action in the book is also very exciting so far. As this new Thor learns what she can do and the tests the limits of her abilities, she does a masterful job of battling foes like the frost giants currently plaguing the storyline. What i’m really looking forward to is her first interactions with other established heroes in the Marvel Universe, especially Thor’s teammates in the Avengers. i flipped through a few pages of the new Captain America which has former Falcon, Sam Wilson, wearing the stars-and-stripes and making yield all those who would oppose his mighty shield. The pages i saw had him standing up quite strongly to Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. and i’m curious to see how he’ll react when he meets Thor.

So far, i’m not 100% convinced i’ll stick with this book for the duration, but for now it’s a fun story that i look forward to seeing how it plays out. A great number of people i know, as well as lots of people online, were very critical of Thor’s new direction, and i urged them to pick up the book to see for themselves. That suggestion still stands, especially for those who may not have ever been into comics or used to but drifted away. It’s worth three issues at least.

Marvel NOW's Thor

Marvel NOW’s Thor

Lastly, and briefly because i’m short on time, i want to give huge praise to the current Silver Surfer run by Dan Slott and Michael and Laura Allred. There’s several books from 2014 that i really love like She-Hulk and Superior Foes of Spider-Man, but above them all is this book, which is just pure fun. For anyone familiar with the Allred’s work, i don’t need to mention that the art is spectacular, and the story is right up there, too. It’s no secret that i’m not really into the slugfest-of-the-month or big crossover stuff, so this book’s tale of cosmic journeys is just a joy to read. Seeing the blossoming relationship between the Surfer and his traveling companion Dawn is really sweet, and the development of the Surfer’s board as a real character is a treat as well. If you love offbeat comic stories and have a place in your heart for classic characters, i strongly urge you to pick up this book. In the comics biz, it’s all about the sales to keep titles alive, and i would be supremely sad to see this one go away because it doesn’t have Surfer zapping Thanos every month or whatever.

GO GET THIS BOOK!

Seriously. There’s probably a collected edition out of the first six issues. Start there. The Power Cosmic demands it.

silver-surfer-2014-3-power-cosmic

 

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Thanks for reading the fourth Week in Geek in addition to visiting The Long Shot. Of course, there were many more exciting things that happened in the world of science, technology and pop culture this week…but these were the ones that most caught my attention. If you have any news you’d like to share, drop me a line and let me know – i try to keep up with stuff but i can’t read everything!

Follow @longshotist on Twitter for frequent shares of related articles and (hopefully) humorous nonsequiters.

Week in Geek will be back next Friday, Nov. 28 and i’d love to see you here! Week in Geek also be appears alongside other great blogs at The News-Herald Blogs (click the logo at the top right of the page for the main site).

Thanks for reading!